Go for the gold

May 19, 2002

OVER THE NEXT six weeks, you're apt to hear a lot more about this region's bid for the 2012 Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Committee pays its final visit to Baltimore and Washington in late June, a key step in deciding this fall which U.S. bid to back in the international competition for the games. The regional bid committee's focus right now is on wooing the Olympic committee. But it also has launched an ad campaign to drum up a sense of grass-root support.

Let's hope the hoopla stirs Baltimore's civic leaders, who urgently need to start acting on the games' tremendous potential for leveraging the transformation of this city. Even though this region may not win the games this time around, Baltimore needs to be paying much closer attention to what the Olympics could bring this town -- before it's too late and before a disproportionate share of the potential benefits are funneled to the Washington area.

So far, civic leaders here are acting as though that's premature, and that's a big mistake.

Being chosen to host the Olympics is the civic equivalent of hitting the lottery, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The Olympics bring the whole world -- in person and by TV -- to your doorstep in search of good vibes. The games infuse billions of dollars into hosts' economies and offer unlimited potential for development, tourism and, in the United States, federal money.

In other words, hosting the games is an unprecedented excuse for thinking as big and as boldly as possible and actually bringing those plans to life in a relatively short time. Besides stadiums and arenas, what else do you need? Mass transit? Community housing? Retail development? Sewers, sidewalks, streetlights? In the United States, host cities can get all this and more -- if they seize the opportunity.

In this respect, Salt Lake City, site of this year's Winter Olympics, raised the bar for subsequent U.S. Olympics. Many know the games brought the city new roads and a light-rail system. But a detailed accounting by Sports Illustrated found that Utah's congressional delegation so aggressively used the games to get federal funds that the final tally for U.S. aid to the Salt Lake City area was some $1.5 billion -- much of it, unfortunately, benefiting private interests who positioned themselves well early on.

Seeking and hosting the Olympics is a more than decade-long marathon; final selection of the 2012 host city won't be made until 2005. But it's a race run at a fairly quick pace -- particularly in terms of the long lead-time required for building major infrastructure. And as in Salt Lake City, the real winners, after the games have come and gone, will be those who planned early and well.

In this region, Baltimore was the source of the initial interest and money for seeking the Olympics. But the core of the bid now rests with Washington. In amended plans filed last month by the Chesapeake bid committee, the 2012 games would be even more concentrated in and around the capital. Under those plans, the games' physical legacy would meet some of Washington's more pressing needs by cleaning the Anacostia River and revitalizing its waterfront (site of the main Olympic stadium), building community housing around Howard University (to house visiting media), and constructing new dorms at the University of Maryland, College Park (the Olympic Village) and a new busway and entrance to the university from Interstate 495.

By contrast, the bid committee's plans in Baltimore are, in the words of its CEO, Dan Knise, "less clear." There'd certainly be a new Baltimore Arena, and Russell Street by Baltimore's two stadiums would have to be improved greatly. There's hope that the Olympics would speed up development of a planned east-west light-rail line. There's some talk of building a facility for bike racing, perhaps in Patterson Park. And, of course, the Olympics provide another reason for putting the Maglev line in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, though the Olympics alone don't justify the train.

Sadly, at this point, that's about it. The best response of aides to Mayor Martin O'Malley is that they're doing some thinking about plans. But several leading civic and development figures say essentially nothing is being done.

If you still think that there's time for this inattention to continue without high costs, consider that at one point in the development of the regional bid, an idea for satellite Olympic villages was internally raised and discarded. That concept might have led to a major development of quality community housing in the forlorn industrial area between the BRESCO power plant and Ravens Stadium. Mayoral aides don't seem to have even heard about it.

Mr. Knise says Washington already is in line for major games-related developments because of a confluence of that area's existing plans and the Olympics' needs. The regional bid committee wants to be a catalyst for such development, rather than an initiator, he says, and remains open to ideas from Baltimore.

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